Tattoos as Self Mutilation

“Sorry Sheila Jeffreys I wanna look cool!” I exclaimed as I got ready to permanently mark my body with what Germaine Greer calls “bad drawing”.

Why did I say this?  Sheila Jeffreys analyzed in her book “Beauty and Misogyny” how the trend of body modifications is actually a popularization of mutilation which is especially marketed to women.  I read it a couple years ago and basically agreed with the premise.  However I’ve always wanted tattoos and had saved enough money to get my first.  I’d also done what felt like a minor achievement for myself that day and wanted it to be forever connected as a triumph in my memory.  

The first thing I noticed was the pain of it.  It felt like getting sliced open with a razor.  Only the pain subsided after awhile and it actually began to feel good.  The intense vibration of the tattoo gun was giving my skin a deep tissue massage which for someone who has a chronic illness which causes severe pain, was very nice to experience.  I began to realize that there was a whole layer of sadomasochism to the whole process which I hadn’t anticipated.  The pleasure/pain dynamic was seriously weird to be experiencing as someone who shys away from that kind of thing instinctively.
My friend who is also a radical feminist went with me and actually got the same tattoo I did.  Afterwards I brought up Sheila Jeffrey’s analysis of body modifications, specifically piercings and tattoos and we had a pretty interesting discussion.  It is true that many women exercise their “agency” by self-mutilation.  My friend, who has multiple tattoos said to me that for her a big part of her life as a woman has been people denying her reality exists.  For her having something permanently on her body is proof that her life and reality cannot be denied.  They’re RIGHT THERE.  So actually what I had brushed aside before from Beauty and Misogyny was made very real by permanently mutilating my body.  In some ways I’ve taken the step to differentiate myself as an individual; this is my body, my image that I project in order to communicate something about myself.  But its also true that what I have to work with as a woman to differentiate myself is often superficial.  Related to the physical, material world and of course, my body.  

I can see now why so many women, particularly ones who are survivors of trauma do develop addictions to getting tattooed.  The pleasure/pain dynamic and the subsequent feeling of agency over the self is an addictive behavior borne out of the desire to feel “real”.

I’m not different.  I know I want more “bad drawings” put on my body.  I guess now though I have a deeper understanding of the what and why of my doing it.


5 responses to “Tattoos as Self Mutilation

  1. I accept Shiela Jeffreys point, but I also think it worth noting that many men dislike tattoos on women because they are an affront to the “purity” they fetishize. I have heard many men criticize tattoos on women but precisely none criticize bare skin – I’ve even heard “There is nothing sexier than bare skin”.There is a group of women who are into tattoos and there is a group of women who value their individuality and recognize their reality outside of men. It is probably no coincidence that those two groups often overlap.

    It is probably fair to say that there are several dimensions at play with the phenomenon of tattoos and it should not be viewed as a case of ‘feminist if anti-tattoos/ non-feminist if tattoos’. Women wouldn’t “have” to mutilate themselves to mark their individuality if there was no patriarchy to escape. I would say that the motivation is often noble but the means are sadomasochistic.

    • Yeah I definitely think its complex. I’ve had men chastise me for wanting tattoos, even for having a tame nostril piercing. Going so far as to physically intimidate me. The message from these men is clear : How dare you do anything to your body that would detract from my use of it.

      I’ve had other women respond on twitter with similar stories.

      I think though some of the desire from males who are “pro-tattoo” is the sadomasochistic factor. “This chick is kinky, etc”.

  2. “I assert that, because every human specimen who is not an identical twin is already phenotypically and genetically unique right out of the box, clothing (and tattoos) serves only to mask one’s natural differences with a display of allegiance, homage, and conformity to the group with which the putative rugged individualist wishes to identify. This is as true of soccer moms as it is of bod-mod chicks. A tattoo doesn’t make you an iconoclast, it makes you one of those people with a tattoo.”

    — Twisty at I Blame The Patriarchy:

  3. We’re really afraid of how we look, because it has always been used against us. Radfems are made to feel apologetic for “wanting to look cool.” Can’t radfems look however we want? Can’t we have our own sense of “beauty?” Or not?

    • Yeah any individual should be free to do whatever they want regarding their appearance as far as I’m concerned. I do think as women there’s more driving these decisions as well as more being at stake than would ever be for men deciding to alter their appearance. As women there’s not really anything we can ever do right.

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